THE INSTALLATION of India’s Narendra Modi government has triggered concerns among many Indian Muslims.
Prime Minister Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) has included in his Cabinet some of the well-known Muslim baiters such as Indresh Kumar and Sadhvi Rithambara. He has given top administrative posts to bureaucrats accused of involvement in anti-Muslim riots. He also has kept mum on the right-wing Hindu demand for a nationwide ban on calls for dawn prayers from mosques over microphones.
A Muslim friend from my native Assam state says these developments “contradict your writings” during and after two recent trips through India, in which I anticipated a diminution of Hindu-Muslim tensions. Did I get it wrong?
Politicians are mostly products of their times. John F. Kennedy emerged at the onset of the “Roaring Sixties,” a liberal social explosion that shook America and Europe. Religion was pretty much contained in the private sphere of American life. Kennedy was a Catholic. The Democratic senator’s candidacy for president unsettled many Americans who feared that, if he were elected president, his public policy would reflect papal dictates.
On Sept. 20, 1960, in Texas, Kennedy assured Americans: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair. Whatever issue would come before me as president … I would make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” Kennedy echoed that theme many times on the campaign trail.
Six decades later liberalism wasn’t “roaring” anymore in America and, in fact, had become a dirty word in American politics. Another Democratic presidential candidate was being attacked by a surging Christian right and other conservatives for allegedly not being a good enough Christian. Propaganda about his perceived religious deficiency threatened to undermine his candidacy. Obama launched a full-throated defense of his Christian credentials.
Early in his life, he said, “I let Jesus Christ into my life.” Christian values would be “a moral center of my administration.” He would introduce “faith-based” social programs because “religion strengthens America.” Obama reiterated the theme on the stump.
Narendra Modi, too, is a man of his time. Gone are the days when Indian political and social elites widely believed in the robust secularism of their Fabian socialist Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Most were still under the ultra-secularist cultural influence of the just-departed British colonialists, which had little relevance to native cultural values. Today India is going through an unprecedented Hindu religious revival. Hindu social and political organizations, once marginalized, have gained the passionate support of a wide swath of the Hindu mainstream. Modi has been part of this religious wave. He and his BJP rode its crest to come to power in New Delhi.
Throughout history, religious and ideological upheavals have, unfortunately, spawned extremism and hostility toward those who don’t belong to the movements. We saw that in the wake of the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions; the Protestant Reformation; and Puritan surge in New England; and several Islamic revivals. India’s Hindu nationalist movement is no exception. Its rise has heightened anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hostility among its ideologues and activists and, more tragically, large numbers of everyday Hindus.
Yet I still don’t share some Indian Muslims’ concerns that the Modi government would go on an anti-Muslim witchhunt. I doubt that the regime would try to abolish Muslims’ separate family laws. I don’t think it would build a temple to the Hindu deity Ram on the site of the historic Babri Mosque, which was demolished by Hindu extremists. Nor do I see it scrapping Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state. These have been on the BJP agenda and make Muslims shiver.
Muslims are close to 15 percent of the Indian population of 1.2 billion, advancing educationally and economically and more assertive of their rights than ever in the history of independent India. I believe Modi and his inner circle know that new attacks on their cherished institutions and culture would trigger a political and societal earthquake, which would threaten the exciting economic development programs for which they won the elections. Many in the top tier of the BJP, some of whom I interviewed, are highly educated, and want to see India as a modern, advancing society. They know that new interfaith convulsions would make it appear to the world as a backward nation, steeped in religious hatred and prejudices.
I noticed the dawning of this realization among some BJP leaders after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Hindu nationalists in that state had started bone-chilling anti-Muslim rioting in which more than 1,000 souls perished, most of them Muslims. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, is widely believed to have instigated the slaughter, even though the Indian Supreme Court cleared him of any legal responsibility for it. The new thinking in the BJP is reflected in the fact that none of the states the party has ruled since 2002 have seen an anti-Muslim riot.
It’s impractical, however, to expect the BJP government to heal the entrenched Hindu nationalist chauvinism overnight. The appointment of some of the chauvinists to high government positions seems to show that predicament.
A more formidable challenge to improving Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the widespread social ostracization of Muslims. Muslims have a hard time landing a government job, getting admission to schools or moving into a Hindu neighborhood. I know Muslim businessmen and journalists in New Delhi who failed to rent an apartment or buy a house in upscale mostly Hindu residential areas and are living in Muslim ghettos.
One of them, a medicine distributor, said, “One [Hindu] landlord settled on the rent and date I could move in, but when I was signing the contract, he saw my [Muslim] name and said, ‘Come tomorrow. Let me talk it over with my family.’ That tomorrow he told me that the family had decided to bring in a relative, instead.”
Modi or the BJP can’t eradicate such widespread social prejudices in an election cycle or a decade. They have, however, a golden opportunity to begin the process through legislation, education and pro-minority social and economic programs. A progressive party government would face strong right-wing Hindu resistance to such projects.
* Mustafa Malik, host of this blog, is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He’s on research trip through his native Indian subcontinent.